R. Tom Gilleon: Cascading Seasons
A new digital work by R. Tom Gilleon looks at the passing seasons on a Montana mountain painted by Charles M. Russell.
In 1922, Charles M. Russell painted Charles M. Russell and His Friends, a selfportrait that showed the artist cheerfully nodding at the viewer and gesturing with his outstretched hand at the expanse around him: a sprawling landscape scene with river valley and green hills, cowboy and Native American figures riding amid swirls of dust, and a buffalo skeleton being swallowed by the prairie grasses in the foreground.
After taking in Russell’s jovial invitation to visit the Old West, sharp-eyed viewers might have their eye drawn to the center of the painting where, in the deep background, a butte juts out from the horizon. It does not play a significant role in the work—it is distant and small compared to the human figures—yet it anchors the other elements of the painting, from the horse and riders and the hills on which they’re galloping, to the river’s curly procession in the valley and a smattering of wispy clouds in the sky. The butte holds such a place of prominence in the Montana landscape that even Meriwether Lewis noted it in his journal in his 1806 journey through the region.
Like Lewis before him, Montana painter R. Tom Gilleon also took notice of the magnificent geological formation, both in Russell’s paintings—he’s painted it numerous times, including in several major works—and in his own backyard in Cascade, Montana, not far from the land feature, known both as Square Butte and Fort Mountain.
“It’s just amazing. So much of the country can be seen, including nearby Crown Butte and the Missouri River,” he says. “There’s a vista from every angle. It’s something special up there.” Inspired by the rich history related to Square Butte, as well as his own observations of the area, Gilleon made the flat-topped mountain the subject of an ambitious new digital project; the largest of its kind he’s ever undertaken. The work is an animated series of paintings shown on a loop on a 4K resolution screen. Gilleon has done several of these projects before, but for Fort Mountain he supersized the results with 32 unique paintings that play on a 19-minute
loop. The work shows the famous Montana landmark from one vantage point during all four seasons: it begins in spring with green grasses surrounding the rocky features of the mountain, leading into a dry summer before showing the rainy season in the fall that brings much-needed nourishment to the soil and wildlife, and then closing on a lengthy winter, during which snow blankets the butte amid crystal-clear light. As the snow later melts away, the grasses return and Square Butte is once again deep in spring, ready for the loop to start anew.
Time plays an important role in these digital works, not only because they require sustained and active viewing from participants—19 minutes if they want to see everything—but because they use the passage of time as a framing device, both from season to season as well as day to night. Fort Mountain shows one subject from all the seasons, with all kinds of weather and in all kinds of light. As a result, time is a manifestation of nature’s resilience as the land is visited by humans, wildlife and Mother Nature, yet refuses to bend to the passage of time.
Not only does the digital work show a 32-image sequence of paintings, with each painting seamlessly fading into the one that follows, but it also tells small stories using visitors to the mountain. In spring a buffalo appears in the foreground, which is followed by a herd of buffalo in the next painting, and then several paintings later with Native American hunters following the herd. The story completes when the rest of the tribe arrives, sets up camp—it glows with firelight in a spectacular series of nocturne paintings—and then moves on before summer sets in. Elsewhere in Fort Mountain, wolves, a rattlesnake, pronghorn and a wide variety of birds make appearances. Toward the end of the loop, an owl stalks an ermine in the snow, dives toward it, misses and then stands amid the snow. In some paintings, the image itself is the story: standouts include a rainbow formed in the passing of an afternoon shower, lightning that illuminates the butte’s rocky edges, the whiteout of a blizzard
and a nighttime scene with the Milky Way spread out in the moonless sky.
“I never tire of watching the cloud shadows race across the front, the way the sun first tinges it pink or the very last light of the evening forming a rim around it,” Gilleon says of his subject matter. “I feel I could pretty well paint any time of year or day from memory.”
The project began with lots of observation. “There are two paths to the top of this hill. I had to go up by horseback on one trail, with another trail to the right of the painting that is an old Jeep trail they’re doing their best to repair,” he says, adding that he couldn’t bring an easel or sketchpad with him. “Once you’re on top up there your hands are full with the horses and watching for snakes.”
Repeated visits and lots of photography would help inform his “animation” of the scene from season to season. Photography, and later small drawings in a sketchbook, eventually led to storyboards. “I knew I wanted to do the four seasons—spring, summer, fall and winter— but I also felt like I had to do things to make each one special. I immediately started treating it like a movie, and everything I was painting was part of my movie script: the grasses coming up in the foreground, the buffalo moving through, the meadowlarks you can hear, the crocus coming through the snowfield as the snow melts,” he says. “Thinking of it as a movie allowed me to think of little scenes with the buffalo and Native American figures, and the snow owl and the ermine. With the snow owl, after he misses his prey, the whole world turns pink, almost out of embarrassment. These were the scenes that were shaping my movie.”
For Gilleon, this idea of a movie as a blueprint was not foreign to him. Before he was a fine artist, he was an illustrator with NASA for the Apollo program, and then later worked as a Disney Imagineer, where he did concept and other artwork for Disney projects around the globe. Later he would also work in Hollywood as an artist—one notable project was the large
matte paintings for Warren Beatty’s 1990 Dick Tracy movie.
With the reference material ready, Gilleon painted a single oil painting that would serve as the superstructure for the whole project. The painting was scanned at a very high resolution and then imported into the artist’s digital workspace in his Montana studio. From there, he used Photoshop to manipulate the basic composition of the 32 paintings, and then he would use Corel Painter to digitally paint the final works. Later “post-production” would create the subtle transitions from one scene to another, a musical score, sound effects featuring local wildlife, drifting snow during the winter scenes and subtle visual effects, such as the rising smoke from illuminated teepees and twinkling stars.
“I use Photoshop to get the colors, values, hues…get all that correct in Photoshop, and once I’m happy with all the elements I take it to Painter, where I can use brushes that mimic oils, pastels, watercolors, acrylics and it all looks very much like the real thing. I use a stylus on a tablet, and it allows me to paint every brushstroke,” he says. “There are lots of pros to this method: There is no cleanup, which is nice because my hands don’t get all messy. I can also undo brushstrokes if I don’t like them. I can even go back 30 or so brushstrokes so I have total control over how things look. The cons are that I don’t get the tactile surface of the canvas, the feel of the brush, the smell of the paint. It’s all very sterile.”
The completed 19-minute work is then installed on a high-end 78-inch 4K TV—“IT’S not exactly off the rack because it’s set up for an integrated system,” Gilleon says, adding that he works with collectors to make sure the project is presented in its most ideal way. Fort Mountain, of which there will be 10 editions, has been completed for several months and the first edition has already been placed in one of the most prominent Western collections in the country.
Collectors and artists can get fussy when it comes to digital works, preferring instead to adhere to the timeless tradition of oil paint. But for Gilleon, who has routinely deviated from traditional methods to explore other mediums, digital is just another tool in the toolbox. “I’ve enjoyed advocating the use of digital methods, and I keep going back to this idea that popped into my mind: do you think if Charlie Russell had been given this ability he wouldn’t have used it?” Gilleon asks. “There will always be people who prefer oil paintings on stretch canvas. Painters will never get away from it, nor will I. I can’t go a week without painting. It’s part of who I am.”
While painting methods may come and go, into and out of fashion, there is one constant in this story about Western art: the timeless appeal of Square Butte, a beacon in Montana that has called to Russell, Gilleon and countless more artists to come.
Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), Charles M. Russell and His Friends, 1922, oil on canvas. Montana Historical Society, Mackay Collection, X1952.01.10.